Boston’s landscape is replete with historic markers that buttress its reputation as the hub of the antislavery movement. There’s the African Meeting House, the nation’s oldest surviving Black church building. Tremont Temple Baptist Church, an underground railroad depot and gathering place for abolitionists. The Joy Street plaque marking the former home of Maria Stewart, the Black 19th-century activist who became the first American woman of any race to give public political speeches.
But increasingly, a more complete truth is being told about the city’s most famous landmarks — and how the slave trade helped shape them. At a time when there is a sustained effort to whitewash American history to remove some of the bitter stains of its origin story, speaking truth about our monuments is more important than ever.
“Unless and until we confront our true history, we can’t move forward,” said Lecia Brooks, chief of staff for the Southern Poverty Law Center.
That confrontation isn’t confined to the Confederate monuments in the South that are coming down. It is also apparent in Boston. For example, “The Emancipation Group” statue, depicting Abraham Lincoln with his hand extended over an enslaved man in shackles, was removed from Park Square by the city in December.
Sentiment about the monument was mixed. Some who defended it pointed out that the man depicted was Archer Alexander, who escaped slavery and fought for the Union Army but was later seized and enslaved again under the Fugitive Slave Act. The sculpture, they argued, was actually an ode to Black liberation. But ultimately, the imagery was discordant with a moment filled by calls for racial justice, and it had to go.
In the ensuing months, the Old North Church and Shirley-Eustis Place in Roxbury had their own reckonings with their histories of support by the slave trade. Now those landmarks are moving to more fully integrate that part of history into their stories.
The church is using a $75,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to amend its education programs to include information about its ties to slavery — including the financing for its steeple, which came in part from the labor of enslaved people. At a ceremony declaring the mansion a historic landmark last month, Acting Mayor Kim Janey acknowledged that the former governor’s estate in Roxbury includes what is believed to be one of the last standing slave quarters in the North.
And now, on Long Wharf, there is a monument marking the city’s role in the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
Brooks noted that for years, activists and civil rights advocates have pushed for more than just the removal of Confederate monuments and other markers of treason and terror from public American spaces. Now public officials and others are also working to tell the truth about monuments, even if they contradict long-held narratives.
“Boston has its whole mythology around abolitionism, and ‘Oh, we were the Great North! We were the good guys!’ ’’ Brooks said. “The fact that they are willing to look at their complicity in the enslavement of human beings is tremendously important.”
This rings particularly true after a years-long sustained effort, championed by Donald Trump, to push a “patriotic education” in America, free of any mention of the brutal vestiges of slavery, and to protect the idolatry of the Confederacy. That false narrative, in part an effort to blunt social justice protests and the Black Lives Matter movement, has been embraced by officials in states across the country and legislation to outlaw critical race theory — a phrase used by legal academics to describe the historical study of race in America that became a contrived bogeyman to fuel right-wing rage — from American classrooms.
But that same censored history is what also helps to fuel increasingly dangerous movements, such as the one that led to January’s invasion of the US Capitol by an angry mob carrying Confederate flags and displaying a host of other imagery that has been embraced by homegrown extremists.
This is a new part of the same tradition of Confederate monuments, many of which were erected in the 20th and 21st centuries not as memorials to those who died in the Civil War, but as symbols of terror for Black Americans. As Washington braces for yet another rally this weekend in support of the insurrectionists, I expect to see more of the same type of display of antebellum pride.
The truth, alone, may not set us free. But it is still a powerful tool against the lies about our history and our present that continue to threaten us.